Baghdad (AP) – On the second day of his visit to Iraq, Pope Francis hopes for new impetus for the interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Islam.
Today, Saturday, in the city of Najaf, he meets Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the foremost representative of Shia Islam in Iraq. It’s unclear whether the two will sign a joint statement. Also on the program of the head of the Catholic Church is an interfaith meeting in the plain of Ur, from which Abraham emerged according to biblical tradition.
Francis had arrived in Baghdad the day before. It is the very first Pope visit to Iraq. With the trip, he fulfills the long-standing hopes of the country’s haunted Christian minority. At first, the 84-year-old called for an end to the violence. “The guns must be silent,” said the Pope. At the same time, he called on Iraqi leaders to grant rights and protections to all religious groups. “No one should be seen as a second class citizen,” he said.
In Baghdad he was greeted by cheering believers lined up along the street, often packed together. There was also criticism in the run-up to the fact that the Pope visited the country in the middle of the corona pandemic. The number of new infections per day in Iraq had risen significantly in recent weeks.
About 150 kilometers south of the capital Baghdad, Najaf is an important center of Shia Islam. This is where the Imam Ali Mosque is located, where the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, who was murdered in 661, is said to be buried. Shia Islam goes back to him, next to Sunni Islam the second major trend in the world religion. The Shias are the majority in Iraq.
Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani has millions of followers and also enjoys political influence. His speeches are very well received in Iraq. However, he lives withdrawn from the public. He has his Friday sermons read. He will also meet Pope Francis behind closed doors. A joint statement would be a success for interfaith dialogue. In 2019, the Pope in Abu Dhabi signed such a document with the Sunni Grand Imam of Egypt, Ahmed al-Tajjib.
Muslims, Jews and Christians, among others, will participate in the meeting in Ur. In the three religions Abraham is considered the ancestor, which gives a visit to the thousands of years old settlement area extra symbolism. In the afternoon, Francis wants to travel back to Baghdad and celebrate mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
The region of what is now Iraq is considered one of the oldest settlements in Christianity. The Christian community there, persecuted time and time again, has shrunk significantly in recent decades. Christians and other religious minorities suffered mainly in areas controlled by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia. Once upon a time there were over a million Christians in Iraq. Today it is estimated at 250,000 to 400,000.
Francis visits Iraq at a time when the corona pandemic is getting worse. Iraq is one of the countries in the region most affected by the pandemic. The security situation had also deteriorated recently.